Garden project aims to attract monarch butterflies

In this April 27 photo, Gabe Ablin, 21, an Environmental Ethics & Policy major at the University of Portland, stands near a series of raised flower beds as part of a project that hopes to create a habitat for the monarch butterfly in Portland, Ore. One year after first planting various milkweed seeds, Vigor intern Ablin will be one of over 700 UP undergraduates collecting a diploma Saturday. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Vigor’s 60-acre shipyard at the tip of Swan Island is a sea of steel and pavement, where cruise ships, naval vessels and ferries all turn to for crucial repairs that can take months and cost millions of dollars.

In the heart of the north Portland shipyard and in the shadow of North America’s largest floating dry dock — which stretches more than three football fields long and is as tall as the White House — a series of raised flower beds are starting to sprout tiny green plants.

The manufacturer that can repair ships weighing upward of 170 million pounds is partnering with the University of Portland to create habitat for a vulnerable creature that weighs no more than a feather: the monarch butterfly.

Whether the garden project in the heart of the Portland Harbor Superfund site succeeds is anyone’s guess.

“If we even had one show up we would all just be doing backflips,” said Alan Sprott, Vigor’s vice president of environmental affairs.

Ablin points to the raised flower beds. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

But it’s off to a positive start.

One year after first planting various milkweed seeds, Vigor intern Gabe Ablin will be one of 780 UP undergraduates collecting a diploma this May. He’s also among thousands of students across the state who will be graduating over the next six weeks.

Ablin says he knew next to nothing about milkweed, which is crucial to the distinctive orange and black butterfly’s survival, when he started the project a year ago.

“This is confirmation that it worked,” he said of the first phase of growth. The milkweed survived Portland’s worst winter in a century under Ablin’s close eye. Buds are popping out of the ground.

Sprott said this is a three- to five-year project that will eventually see thousands of milkweed and other native plants installed along the river bank and spread throughout the shipyard. The company said it will devote 2.25-acres to the project, a substantial investment.

Butterflies won’t make Vigor any money, but Sprott said it’s not about that.

“We operate in the Pacific Northwest,” he said of the company’s 10 locations in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. “The environmental ethos of the people here is pretty strong, and you’re either at the dinner table with them or you’re on the menu. So, we’re trying to be at the table.”

BAKERSFIELD TO PORTLAND

Ablin, 21, arrived in Portland four years ago from Bakersfield, a city he described as the most polluted in the country.

He and his older brother grew up going to the Jameson Ranch Camp each summer in the Sequoia National Forest northeast of town, where he fell in love with the outdoors and saw a career in environmental work as possible. He learned how to garden, weld and split wood. His dad went to the ranch as a child as well, and the years of summers were affecting.

“There’s something beyond the smog cloud. Literally, and metaphorically,” Ablin said.

For college, he landed at UP and pursued an environmental ethics and policy degree.

During his sophomore year, Ablin learned in an air pollution class about an internship opportunity at Vigor, which he only knew at the time as “those boats you see off the bluff.”

In response to neighborhood complaints to the Department of Environmental Quality about paint and other noxious smells wafting up from Swan Island, Vigor decided to investigate whether it was responsible.

Ablin was one of several paid interns who canvassed the neighborhood and took air samples as part of what would become an 18-month study.

The Californian’s first job was at one of Bakersfield’s oil companies so he liked the idea of working for a big company on environmental projects.

“I want to walk the line between being just a total eco-hippie warrior sitting in trees 40 hours a week and just fully working for a company and selling my soul,” Ablin said of his calculus.

He saw that Vigor cared.

“It was super cool that a big industrial company like Vigor was doing something that they did not have to do,” Ablin said.

The company shut down a wastewater treatment plant that it determined was responsible for some of the complaints, and shifted practices to try and boost air quality. Sprott said the company wants to be a good neighbor, and “walk our talk.”